|Volume 23 Number 7 July 2021
The Barren Fig Tree
T. Pierce Brown
Sixty-five years ago, when I read about the barren fig tree in Mark 11:12-14, I was disturbed a little by the expression in verse 13, “For the time of figs was not yet.” I wondered why Jesus would pronounce a curse on a tree that was barren when it was not time for it to have figs. The only solution that occurred to me is that those fig trees normally have figs before they have leaves, and this one had an appearance that was deceptive. Even if that is not the correct explanation of the reason, He cursed a fig tree though it was not the time for it to bear. There is a valid lesson in principle.
A prominent tree that could be seen from afar, and according to its promise, should have been full of fruit was a living lie. We could dwell at length on the lesson that should have been evident to the Jews. They had the oracles of God, were children of the covenant, with all the promises, privileges and hopes the covenant gave them. They not only had the opportunity to do great things for God but also made abundant profession. They gave much alms and for pretense made long prayers and did many other things to make it appear that they were very godly. Yet, when we look for real fruit bearing for God, we find none. Jesus discussed this exact point in Luke 13:6-9 and various other places, indicating that Israel would be rejected because the Jews were not bearing fruit for God.
Why go back to Israel for an illustration? On every hand we find among professed Christians the same condition as John expressed about Sardis in Revelation 3:1, “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead.” I heard of a preacher at the funeral service who said, “This corpse has been a member of the church for 25 years.” It was perhaps a more fitting expression than he realized. The Bible speaks of “laborers together with God” (1 Corinthians 3:9). If you had a business partner and he did no more for the partnership than you do for this one, would you want to dissolve the partnership?
There are those who have claimed membership in the Lord’s church for more than 25 years who not only have never taught a person about Christ, neither led one to Him nor have any intention of ever trying. They may even attend services three times a week and, therefore, are reckoned among the most faithful members. Yet, you may search in vain for any particular kind of fruit they have borne for Christ. This profession without any fruit is a very serious situation. In the first place, it misrepresents Christianity. There is not the remotest hint in the New Testament that Christians were primarily known for their church attendance. Christianity does not consist of merely teaching the right doctrine, as important as that is. Jesus said about the Pharisees in Matthew 23:3, “All things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say and do not.” It is very disturbing to me to go to a congregation where it is known for the soundest preaching in the brotherhood and see no evidence of any intensive efforts in personal evangelism or other individual acts of fruit bearing. Sometimes, actual negative preaching against worldwide efforts to carry out the Great Commission is found in what we call doctrinally sound congregations.
Not only does it misrepresent true Christianity, but it is also a definite hindrance to those who might seek Christ. There are many who have turned to skepticism because of the barren lives of those that profess and do not.
Perhaps the most serious part of the problem is what happens to those who are in the condition of the barren fig tree – professing but not bearing fruit. Not only did the fig tree wither, but also it bore no fruit forever. The withered, barren lives that we see in the church today are sad enough. The eternal destiny of those who say and do not is even sadder.
When one asks, “Why do we not bear more fruit for Christ today?” he can find many answers. One is that some who claim membership in the church were not actually “planted together with Christ and raised up to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-5). One cannot expect to find fruit on a tree that has never been properly planted. We have taught for many years that no one can “join” the church of Christ. That is true in the sense the pioneer preachers meant it, for they meant “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). However, there are many who have merely joined the local church so their names are added to the directory; they have given no evidence that they are walking in newness of life. Neither have they become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) nor that the life of Christ is being manifest in their mortal flesh (2 Corinthians 4:11).
Second, some trees may fail to bear fruit because they get little nourishment from the soil in which they are planted. Most of the nourishment many church members get is from the “worship service,” which may be little worship and no service at all.
Third, some trees not only do not produce fruit, but they die because of the environment. When I lived in Niagara Falls, there were many trees between where I lived and the falls. The sulfur dioxide or other chemicals spewing out of the factories killed all of them in a few years. In what kind of environment do you live? Is it a constant barrage of vulgar television or similar events?
Fourth, many trees and vines do not bear properly because no pruning is done. We need persons who have learned how to cut off a lot of useless activity so they may be more productive for Christ. If one half the time spent looking at television were spent doing things that would glorify God, the church could double in membership in one year. Also, some churches need to prune some of the branches that do not bear fruit or that only bear rotten fruit.
[Editor’s Note: We need to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5) and analyze our fruitfulness (John 15:1-8). What’s the status of your fig tree? ~ Louis Rushmore, Editor]